Judge halts pay or appear: New state law to impact finances in Clallam, Jefferson counties

Judge Rick Porter

Judge Rick Porter

PORT ANGELES — Rick Porter, the Port Angeles area’s outgoing District Court judge, has eliminated his pay-or-appear program, a singular achievement of his 16-year tenure, in the wake of a new state law that will cramp finances in Clallam and Jefferson counties.

Porter, who is is not running for re-election Nov. 6, said last week he is heeding a state law Gov. Jay Inslee signed March 27 that insulates indigent defendants from paying fines and other court costs when convicted of criminal offenses.

Officials in Clallam and Jefferson counties said HB 1783 (https://tinyurl.com/PDN-HB1783) will have a lasting impact on government finances in 2018.

The effect will be sharper in Clallam County than Jefferson County, where judges and officials have decreased their imposition of fines and costs on indigent defendants in light of recent court rulings, the officials said last week.

The law eliminates fines, fees, penalties and assessments known as legal financial obligations (LFOs) that judges are allowed to impose on defendants classified as indigent at the time of sentencing.

“The court shall not order a defendant to pay costs if the defendant is indigent as defined in RCW 10.101.010(3) (a) through (c),” the law says.

The RCW (https://tinyurl.com/PDN-Indigent) defines indigent persons as those who receive certain kinds of public assistance or receive annual income after taxes of 125 percent or less of the federal poverty level.

Income for a single person at 125 percent of the 2018 poverty level is $15,175 a year, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Single-person income at 100 percent of the poverty level is $12,140 annually.

The law also says judges must take into account defendants’ financial condition when fines are assessed, whether or not they are indigent.

LFOs include victim restitution, crime victims’ compensation fees, costs associated with the offender’s prosecution and sentence, fines, penalties and assessments, according to the House Bill Report on HB 1783 (https://tinyurl.com/PDN-1783Report).

Indigent defendants are “90 percent of the folks we deal with,” Porter said in a telephone interview.

“This will end up costing the county something north of $500,000,” he predicted.

The first week of April, Porter eliminated his pay-or-appear program.

It allowed offenders to pay fines based on their ability to pay, do community service work in lieu of paying, or appear in court before Porter to explain the delinquency.

Failure to pay or appear generated $150 arrest warrants and at least a night in the Clallam County jail.

“The problem with this law is, now the judges all across the state will be very limited in what they can do,” Porter said.

“The only thing left is jail time or community service work in lieu of jail time.

“During my tenure, I’ve broken even or made money every year.

“There’s not really any way to do that anymore.”

Porter established the pay-or-appear program in 2002 after he was elected, and it’s been challenged by election opponents he has defeated.

“There were a lot more supporters than there were critics,” he said Friday, declining to say if he was disappointed by the passage of the law.

“We can have this conversation when I’m no longer a judge,” Porter said.

Clallam County Administrator Jim Jones assessed the potential loss of county revenue by employing a three-year average of revenue from county Superior Court, Port Angeles-area District Court 1, West End-area District Court 2, and county probation fees.

He said $880,000 was “at risk” of being lost as a result of the law through December 2019 — about $300,000 in 2018 and the remainder of 2019.

It includes $453,000 from District Court 1, $126,000 from Superior Court, $95,000 from District Court 2, and $207,000 in probation fees.

Jones said he had “no idea” where the money for court operations would come from as the law takes effect, although existing LFOs are still being paid.

“It comes out of reserves, or you cut costs elsewhere,” Jones said.

“That’s completely up to what the [county] commissioners decide to do when they build their budget.”

In Jefferson County, a 2015 state Supreme Court ruling in State V. Blazina caused “a dramatic reduction in the assessment of LFOs” on indigent persons, county Administrator Philip Morley said.

In its Blazina ruling, the justices said if a person meets indigence criteria such as receiving public assistance or drawing a below-poverty-level income, courts should “seriously question that person’s ability to pay LFOs.”

Jefferson County District Court Judge Jill Landes said she has adjusted her sentencing practices since the Blazina ruling and a similar state Supreme Court ruling in Richland v. Wakefield.

Judge Jill Landes

Judge Jill Landes

In Richland v. Wakefield, a homeless, disabled, indigent defendant had been ordered to pay $15 a week toward her LFOs.

“It has had a very profound effect on the revenues that the district court brings in, which means the counties and the state are going to have to step up in funding the courts in the future,” Landes said.

“We are talking, significantly.”

Jefferson County District Court Administrator Tracie Bick said the court at one time brought in as much as was spent.

“We’re not anywhere near that now,” Bick said.

She said that in 2017, projected revenue was $660,000, actual revenue was $596,000, and expenditures were $834,000.

“Blazina and [Richland v. Wakefield] were a huge part of that,” Bick said.

Porter and county jail Chief Corrections Deputy Wendy Peterson said the jail population, which stood at 92 on Friday, averaged one pay-or-appear incarceration a day.

“Pay or appear did not impact us that harshly,” Peterson said Wednesday. “That’s not driving our population.

“Where the impact will be is the court costs and stuff.”

She said there may be a temporary spike in the jail population if judges impose jail terms instead of solely assessing fines.

“We’re going to notice an increase for a period of time, kind of like when pay or appear first started,” Peterson predicted.

Porter said the loss of the pay-or-appear option will depend in part on sentencing recommendations from the county Prosecuting Attorney’s Office.

Prosecuting Attorney Mark Nichols is running for reelection.

“There may be cases where we may be asking for jail time if that is the only means through which we can have a sentence that meaningfully advances a policy of deterrence,” Nichols said Friday.

Nichols said the full scope of certain aspects of the new law, such as those related to victim-restitution financial obligations, may be subject to further legal interpretation.

Olympia Municipal Court Judge Scott Ahlf, president of the state District and Municipal Court Judges Association, said Friday that HB 1783 likely will be a hot topic at the group’s conference the first week in June.

Ahlf said the association’s legislative committee has been reviewing the new law and will give conferees an update on the 30-page bill and its impacts.

Ahlf said there may be some “backfill” state funding to help courts address the new requirements, although “a number” of cities, and counties like Jefferson, already have begun making adjustments based on the 2015 and 2016 Supreme Court rulings.

“We are not in the business to pay for ourselves,” Ahlf said.

“We are here to dispense justice.

“It’s all of society’s obligation to pay for the courts, not just the people that appear” in court, Ahlf said.

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Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at pgottlieb@peninsuladailynews.com.

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